Death of Sanskrit

George Thompson GthomGt at CS.COM
Fri Aug 10 02:00:39 UTC 2001

I would like to publicly thank Sheldon Pollock for his generous offer to
distribute his article to all interested parties.  Having just read the
article, I would like to add my voice to the chorus of stutis that it has
already received.  It is a valuable discussion of what appears to have been,
in some sense, the final days of oiving Sanskritic culture in India.

As a Vedicist, I surely have an antiquarian's view of the pre-moderrn,
pre-colonial culture examined by Pollock.  From my distant vantage point,
Sanskrit authors like jagannAtha, siddhicandra, and kavIndra seem almost like
our contemporaries, even though I accept Pollock's general point that in
spite of their closeness to us in time, we still don't know very much about
them.  If we compare these authors to, say, vizvAmitra or vasiSTha, however,
I think it is clear that we are dealing with very different universes.
Little known to us though they may be, jagannAtha, et al., are, in my
opinion, recognizably our peers.  This is not true of our Vedic authors,
whose cultural universe in my view shares frustratingly little with ours.
But that is not the point that I wish to make in this note.

Rather, I'd like to defend the use of the term "death" to refer to the
condition of Sanskrit at this time.  Madhav Deshpande has expressed his
misgivings re this term, but he was responding, if I recall, on an e-mail
list that is rampant with Yahoo-Indologists.  In that context, applying the
term "death" to Sanskrit is surely inflammatory, and therefore best to be
avoided.  Like Madhav, I surely wouldn't use the term in the company of such
folks.  Pollock himself, in the present article, has also expressed
misgivings about the connotations and appropriateness of the metaphor
"language death."

But in the company of this list's members I certainly would accept this as a
legitimate concept.  If one were to take a brief look at contemporary
journals of linguistics, it would quickly become clear that language death is
a topic of significant, vital concern [see also the related topics: language
extinction, language preservation, endangered languages, etc].  The term
'language death' has a more or less clear definition for linguists.  It
refers to a specific condition: that point at which a given language no
longer operates as anyone's first language, that point at which there are no
longer native speakers of the language.  At that point the language is said
to be dead, even if there may be a Kroeber who has survived his Ishi, and can
make some sense of what has 'survived' of this language in transcriptions and
in grammars.  In fact, languages are dying at an alarming rate, and many
linguists are clearly concerned about this.

The peculiarity of Sanskrit, as of other classical languages, is that even
after it has reached that point beyond which it cannot claim any native
speakers [pace those "Speak Sanskrit" communities which have perhaps
recklessly experimented with their children's first language acquisition], it
continues to have a sort of after-life, in the case of Sanskrit a quite
strong after-life. In my view, this is what Pollock has examined in his
present article.

For the sake of brevity, I would suggest that the question of whether or not
Sanskrit is dead is, or should be considered, an empirical question.  Is
there a point at which Sanskrit stopped being the native language for a given
speaker or community of speakers?

To put this question differently: what are the features of all natural
languages, and do classical languages like Sanskrit or Latin exhibit all of
these features?  If in fact it has lost one or more of these features, when
exactly did it do so?

There is a certain unpredictability, fluiditiy, drift, creativity and
innovation, outright borrowing, external influences from other languages,
etc., in all natural languages [like Vedic] that one fails to see in the
epigonic after-life of classical languages [like Classical Sanskrit].

The question of the death of Sanskrit can be answered rationally by
determining whether and to what extent it possesses the features that are
characteristic of all natural languages.

If I am not mistaken, the evidence offered by Pollock suggests that Sanskrit
at this late stage in its history lacks some of these features.  But perhaps
I am mistaken.

I would be grateful if list members could clarify this issue for me.

Best wishes,

George Thompson

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